Former Albemarle County Employees Win Case Against County
Thirteen Albemarle County employees who accepted early retirement offers only to have the county ask for much of that money back have won their case in court.
It took a seven member jury of four women and three men less than two hours to decide the case in Albemarle County Circuit Court Tuesday afternoon. They ordered Albemarle County to pay the former employees $83,397 in promise-broken retirement benefits.
The plaintiffs represent a diverse group of people ranging from a police officer to a former administrator and came together to have their complaints heard and decided as a group. The case played out over a two day period.
All chose to retire early because of the extra benefits that they say they were lead to believe would only be available for a limited period of time, coming at a period when the county was looking to save money by reducing expenses.
Months after they left their jobs they were told their benefits would be lowered and that they could not simply come back to work in the jobs they'd left. In some of those cases the positions had already been filled by other people and in some cases the position was being left unfilled as a cost-cutting measure, they said.
Ron Kessler, a former county police officer who is now working for a different agency, said "Based on the figures that they gave us, we made life altering decisions to give up our positions."
The same was true for former county assessor Bruce Woodzell who says "They admitted to me that they had made a mistake and that they were very sorry about the mistake but they had to take action and that action was to reduce my benefits."
Albemarle County had argued that the overpayments were a clerical mistake, that only supervisors can approve contracts and that Albemarle taxpayers should not be held responsible for the error.
Jim Guynn, the attorney representing the county, asked afterwards, "What if it had been a million-and-a-half dollar mistake?" and underlined the point he'd made in court about it being a low-level clerical error, "I wouldn't think the taxpayers of the county would want anyone other than their elected officials approving contracts."
Plaintiff's attorney Ed Lowry dismissed that logic saying that decisions like this are routinely delegated to the county executive, to others in that chain-of-command, and that county supervisors cannot be expected to deal with this granular level of administrative detail.
The thirteen involved in this case are not the only county employees who saw their benefits unexpectedly cut, several dozen other people are in a similar boat, but did not join this lawsuit. Lowry says if they were to collect on their first-promised retirement benefits the total value could run between $300,000 and $400,000.
Albemarle County is considering appealing the decision and have issued the following statement: "While we respect and appreciate the service of the jury, we disagree with the decision that was reached. The county maintains its position that the Board of Supervisors by policy determines the amount of benefits that employees receive and that amount cannot be increased by an employee's error in calculating the amount of the benefit, however unfortunate that error may be. Accordingly, we are considering our attorney's recommendation to appeal this decision."